The role of restaurants as a community space has shifted significantly in 2020. Amid a struggling hospitality industry and with continued health risks and restrictions on indoor dining in many states, restaurants have been forced to re-envision the communal experience of food. VICE asked chefs and restaurant owners: Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, what has finding community through food looked like for you? These conversations took place in late July and early August, and the situation for the restaurant industry continues to change quickly.
After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25, people took to the streets demanding justice. By the end of the week, the St. Paul-based chef and House of Gristle pop-up founder Jametta Raspberry was out there, too, serving meals to protesters. With state-wide restrictions on indoor gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, Raspberry's pop-up and catering operations had ground to a halt, forcing her to pivot to a home-based cheese and charcuterie business instead.
But as Minneapolis and St. Paul mobilized through an outpouring of local and national support, Raspberry asked herself where her knowledge of the food industry could be the most useful, and she reached out to the people around her. Through volunteer support and donations, House of Gristle served thousands of free meals beginning in May, and Raspberry plans to continue doing so. Raspberry told VICE how she tapped into her local network to provide food, and why we have to continue working together.
“The idea of House of Gristle was created in January of 2019 based on the idea of an "anti-restaurant concept" that would help dismantle disparities that I've experienced as a chef in the industry. Prior to that, I worked for about 15 years in various kitchens. The intent was to create a concept that allows women and women of color—specifically Black women—that were interested in the culinary industry to participate, and to allow them an opportunity to have ownership and management.
We don't define our cuisine; it's presenting food as a way to bring people together and connect people across all cultures and races and genders and things like that. That's kind of what "gristle" means—it doesn't mean this literal thing. We're represented by different kinds of people graciously believing that this can be a shift, or at least help shift the culture a little bit. It's really important to intentionally try to make that space safe for everyone.
I was like, well, what's the immediate action I could take? Free food.
Our entire concept was built on social interaction. [With the pandemic], I had, like, a 93 percent stop in business.
I have been a part of protests prior to this. I've felt like social justice was always at the core of who I was, just based on my experience. With this particular incident, I wanted to be used in a different way, and I thought I had an opportunity to not be in the front line. When the grocery stores burned down and were vandalized, I knew instantly—because I know the area—that was gonna affect the entire flow of food. Because I understood that, I was like, well, what's the immediate action I could take? Free food.
The first day, I spent my money making tacos. I called some friends like, "Look, this is where I'm going to be. Do you want to help?" The next day, 10 more people showed up. It got bigger and bigger and all of a sudden we had this full-on operation, and we had to learn how to work together. We've collaborated with the French Hen Cafe, and we're fully operating out of that on their off hours. There was a call to action.
We did, I think, 5,000 [meals] in the first two weeks, and we're doing about 150 a week now. We have limited resources, but we're trying to really get organized so we can do it in the most effective and efficient way. We're trying to be smarter about it, so we've slowed down. It was every day the first three to four weeks, and we're at about twice a week now. There are four core House of Gristle [employees], and we have maybe three other volunteers. We're able to do a lot within just our core group right now, but they lend their time. If we have a bigger need, we have a website where people can sign up.
People have to deal with so much; you have so many decisions to make, and hunger should never be one of them.
When the fires happened and things were burning down, it was really chaotic, where there were so many places where people needed things, and organizations had to split up to take on a certain area and certain needs. Now, I really want to focus on the kids that are going to be affected by the in-home learning and being food-insecure. I feel that they don't have much of a choice in all of this, and I really want to hone in on helping them. I have two kids I've raised all the way into college, so I know closely about what they're thinking, what they care about—not [in everything], but when it comes to food. It made the most sense for me.
People have to deal with so much; you have so many decisions to make, and hunger should never be one of them. I think that's at the core: Let's just make sure everybody's fed. It was natural to go into my social network community and ask for help and be like, "This is what I'm doing. What can you do?" I was moved to do it, and to keep going.
There were a lot of people that stepped up and showed up that I didn't even think would ever. I was seeing people that I used to work with [in the food service industry], and maybe we briefly had an interaction, or maybe we briefly had more of a professional [relationship], as opposed to a friendship, but they came through. I felt more appreciative and I was grateful for the community of people that felt the same way as I do.
This pandemic really exposed a lot—that just means that we've all got to get to work and take care of each other.
My reality is that I'm still confined by limitations of racism and sexism. I still have to participate in the system that I really don't want or respect. I'm not a food writer, I'm not a speaker, I'm not a whatever—I can just cook food, and I'm going to keep using my voice and the power that I have in my business to keep that dialogue going. The first thing I've learned [from this experience] is that I can do it; I may have doubted myself because of systemic racism and oppression in really every crevice of life, being a Black woman, but I restored confidence in myself and kept pushing.
I didn't want to do anything in vain, and we were able to come together and see something form and grow out of literally nothing. That's pretty amazing, and that just gives me hope. [I'll do it] until the resources run out, and hopefully they never do. This pandemic really exposed a lot—that just means that we've all got to get to work and take care of each other.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.